November 1st began the merry month of madness many authors know as NaNoWriMo. Once again, as I have for the last seven years, I spent those thirty days on an intensive writing binge. Thank the hundred little gods of writing, it’s over!
This year, I made good progress on the rough draft of my current work-in-progress, which surprised me. I had intended to put that (still unfinished) epic fantasy novel aside and concentrate on building a backlog of short stories, poems, and flash fictions, all of which were to be written to a variety of different themes.
The reason I must build a backlog with a wide variety of themes is this: most anthologies and many publications will call for submissions based around a central idea–such as carnival, redemption, bridges, asylum–large concepts that unify the disparate stories.
Times have changed and so has the publishing industry. Despite the changes, writing short stories is still the way to get your foot in the door and not only gain visibility, but you can gain respectability. Magazines that are SFWA affiliated are springing up all over the internet, and they are accepting submissions.
Submitting to contests is good too. If you have a story that was a contest winner, you may be able to sell it to the right publication. Through the process, you will grow as a writer.
So, my plan was to write to as many different themes as I could think of. I wasn’t as successful at that as I intended, but I did manage a few short stories. Hopefully, if an opportunity presents itself later, I will have the perfect story ready, one that will only need some revising and editing.
One question I hear often when I am giving seminars is “How do I identify the theme of my story?”
Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and often it’s a moral. Love, honor, family, redemption, and revenge are all common, underlying themes.
Sometimes it’s difficult to write a short story unless you start out with a theme in mind. The same can be said for novels, although the theme can emerge more slowly than in short stories. For me, writing to a theme makes the process easier because half the work is done—I know what I’m writing about.
When I made my list of proposed stories, I searched Submittable for open calls, so I would know the trending themes in advance. Some publications have submission dates that are several months out, some have short deadlines. Several of the stories I worked on during November are for themed anthologies with open calls for submission, but whose closing dates are rapidly approaching.
Many contests and publications use the Submittable platform to accept and review the large volume of manuscripts they received from writers. When a publisher uses this platform, it’s great for us as authors because we can use the app to keep track of what we have submitted, and where it currently is in the process.
On your personal page, Submittable lists four stages in the process:
It is the responsibility of the contest manager or publication to notify Submittable as to the status of their entries and submissions, and while most do, some contests managers aren’t as diligent about that. I assume that if it has been more than year and the manuscript is still in review, they didn't want that piece.
Knowing the trending themes publishers are asking for is crucial to building your backlog with salable stories, so if you don’t have a Submittable account, you should get one.
What I hope to do in each story I begin writing is to identify what the theme the publisher wants stories written to means to me.
My story will be up against many entries, so I need to make mine as unique as is possible. Analyze the theme and try to think creatively—think a little wide of the obvious tropes. Look for an original angle that will play well to that theme and then go for it.
To support the theme, you must layer
As an author, most of my novels have been epic fantasy, based around the hero’s journey and detailing how the events my protagonists experience shapes their reactions and personal growth. The hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.
These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.
I like submitting my work to places that use Submittable, because when you can see where your work is in that process, you can better decide what to do with each manuscript. After all they have room for only so many pieces. This means that sometimes your good work is rejected in favor of another author’s good work. Sulking over a rejection doesn't advance your career, so promptly put that manuscript back into circulation.
What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common? This is what your theme is, and what you must write to.
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger and can be found blogging regularly at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.